People always say: “Everything happens for a reason.” Usually with a knowing wink, as if there’s mysterious meaning behind it. As if some greater being or force has determined the proper sequence and nature of everything that happens on earth, and makes things happen to fit that grand scheme.
But it isn’t so. It’s really just causation, dressed up as having meaning.
Say you’re sitting at your desk and a pencil rolls off a shelf, falls onto your old address book (yes, the paper kind, which people kept before the advent of the electronic calendar), and lands pointing directly to a listing for your elderly aunt. This seems to be a truly random event, particularly if your desk is an unholy mess like mine. When you notice the pencil apparently pointing in the general direction of this particular listing, you recall that this elderly aunt had recently been ill, so you call and wish her well. Tragically, she dies four hours later.
You later mention that the circumstance of the pencil having fallen was what prompted your call to ailing auntie, and someone immediately wants to ascribe the event to divine intervention. You get the knowing wink and the conspiratorial nod – “Everything happens for a reason.”
Calling it a divine act seems to bring order and reason to what would otherwise be random chaos; mere coincidence, but that’s all it was. Saying everything happens for a reason is really just an extension of Ecclesiastes 3 (remember the song “Turn Turn Turn” by the Byrds – a time to be born a time to die, etc.?). “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven.” Maybe.
Or maybe things just happen because that’s the way the cookie crumbles. Time goes by and cells get tired and maybe you breathe more radon than you should have, and a bunch of lung cells multiply madly, grow into a tumor, metastasize, travel to everywhere in your body, and your life is over. If you’re 80 something, the conclusion will be “he lived a full life,” but “it was his time.” If you’re 30 the prevailing wisdom will be “he had his whole life ahead of him,” but again – obviously – “it was his time.” And then when the thirty year old’s widow meets and marries a billionaire six months later, the conclusion will be “everything happens for a reason.”
It is what it is.
This is another favorite of the casual (causal?) philosopher, and like the Ecclesiastes conclusion, it’s irrefutable. “It” must be an object of some kind; therefore it exists and “is.” Whatever “it” is, that is its identity, and therefore it is “what” it is. So to say “it is what it is,” is simply to recognize reality: things exist, with their own identities, and there’s nothing you can do about it. That last part is implied. When you say “it is what it is,” you’re really saying “it’s reality; you can’t do anything about it; shut up and accept it.”
Which brings us to a related platitude: “let go and let God.” This follows naturally from “it is what it is”: because if you can’t affect the reality of things, you might as well just accept them (“let go”), and let the universe have its way with them, as it will in any event (“let God”). Whether there’s a divine being up in the sky pulling the strings on this marionette show, or whether everything that happens is dictated by the course of nature, or whether it’s all just random madness, these sayings seem to foster comfort and acceptance. And at this stage of my life, those are good things regardless of the source.
So go ahead – recite them on any occasion, either alone or in sequence, and they’ll make as much sense as anyone needs to ascribe to them.
“Hey, everything happens for a reason.”
“It is what it is.”
“Let go and let God.”
Thanks for the post. You are in tune with what Kohelet (the author of Ecclesiastes) teaches for his book is about the significance of our work in a world that is twisted and broken. He points out that when God brought thorns and thistles into this creation we ended up with a world that is, by nature, random and unplanned. That is why Kohelet will say “The race is not always to the swift, not the battle to the strong, nor does food always come to the wise, wealth to the brilliant or success to the educated for time and chance happen to us all.” This is life upon the earth as it is and no religious platitudes or slogans will change it. Ecclesiastes is an upbeat book for it tells us to embrace this life and enjoy it for what it is. “When times are good, be happy and when times are bad remember that God has created both to ensure that a person will never know what the future holds.”
Nice to meet someone who has made peace with a real world.
Vance – http://www.artofwork.ca